Thursday, April 19, 2012

Change in AP rule is not hopeful or helpful

Two days in Washington (for job-related training, not for fun) gave me the rare opportunity to read the Washington Post in its wonderful, complete, ink-on-paper entirety. But this article from Wednesday's edition left me a bit in shock: The Associated Press (along with some dictionaries) is allowing "hopefully" to be used as meaning "it is hoped." Generations of careful writers (and copy editors) contended that such use of "hopefully" (which really means "with a hopeful attitude") was dead wrong. It was a blasphemy against good writing! H.W. Fowler's "Modern English Usage" (1944), Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style," John Bremner's "Words on Words" and other excellent guides to correct word usage all agreed: "hopefully" means "with hopefulness," not "I hope" or "it is hoped." The "Harbrace College Handbook," a bible for freshman composition classes" considered this usage "still questionable."

But now the Associated Press has thrown in the towel. Preserving the true meaning of this word is no longer worth the fight, it seems, and a losing fight it has been. I cannot tell you how many "hopefullys" I have deleted from news copy over the 30+ years I was a newspaper editor. What concerns me is what's next? Will AP also give up the fight for the distinction between "lay" and "lie"? That usage error is as common as the abuse of "hopefully," but it's a simple and clear distinction that no one seems to care about any more. And what about "its" and "it's," another very common usage error?

The question is whether dictionaries and stylebooks should be prescriptive or descriptive. A prescriptive guide tells how words and language should be used. A descriptive guide describes how words are commonly used. If we give up the fight for rules of usage and of grammar, language becomes muddled and meanings become unclear. When that happens, communication suffers. Those of us in the communications business — and all of us are in that business — should care about clarity and preciseness of meaning.

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